By John Wagner
WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump on Wednesday announced that he is disbanding a controversial panel studying alleged voter fraud that became mired in multiple federal lawsuits and faced resistance from states that accused it of overreach.
The decision is a major setback for Trump, who created the commission last year in response to his claim, for which he provided no proof, that he lost the popular vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016 because of millions of illegally cast ballots.
The commission met only twice amid the series of lawsuits seeking to curb its authority and claims by Democrats that it was stacked to recommend voting restrictions favorable to the president’s party.
In a statement, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said there is “substantial evidence of voter fraud” and blamed the ending of the commission on the refusal of many states to provide voter data sought by the panel and the cost of ongoing lawsuits.
The bipartisan panel, known as the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, had been nominally chaired by Vice President Pence and led by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Republican who has aggressively sought to prosecute alleged voter fraud in his state. Pence in recent months had sought to distance himself from its work.
In the statement, Sanders said Trump had signed an executive order asking the Department of Homeland Security “to review its initial findings and determine next courses of action.”
Critics of the commission hailed Trump’s announcement, calling it long overdue.
“The commission never had anything to do with election integrity,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.. said in a statement. “It was instead a front to suppress the vote, perpetrate dangerous and baseless claims, and was ridiculed from one end of the country to the other. This shows that ill-founded proposals that just appeal to a narrow group of people won’t work, and we hope they’ll learn this lesson elsewhere.”
Former Missouri Democratic secretary of state Jason Kander also wished the panel “good riddance.”
“President Trump created his sham voting commission to substantiate a lie he told about voter fraud in the 2016 election,” said Kander, president of the advocacy group Let America Vote. “When he couldn’t come up with any fake evidence, and under relentless pressure, he had no choice but to disband his un-American commission.”
Trump, however, appeared to stand by the claims of voter fraud without offering any further evidence.
In tweets Thursday, he said the commission “fought hard” to investigation allegations of voter abuses “because they know that many people are voting illegally. System is rigged, must go to Voter I.D.”
“As Americans, you need identification, sometimes in a very strong and accurate form, for almost everything you do . . . except when it comes to the most important thing, VOTING for the people that run your country,” Trump wrote in a separate tweet. “Push hard for Voter Identification!”
The 11-member commission proved a magnet for controversy from the outset and was sued by one of its members, Maine Democratic Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, who alleged in November that he has been kept in the dark about its operations, rendering his participation “essentially meaningless.”
Republicans on the commission accused Dunlap of paranoia, but a federal judge last month ruled partly in his favor.
In an interview Wednesday night, Dunlap said it may be premature to celebrate the demise of the commission, given Trump’s announcement that Homeland Security would pick up the work. The department, he said, could angle to change regulations affecting driver’s licenses and other matters affecting voting without as much public scrutiny.
“I think people who are saying ‘the witch is dead’ should be very alarmed by this move,” he said. “I think that’s very dangerous.”
The commission had been targeted in at least eight other lawsuits seeking to curb its operations or make its deliberations more transparent. Several of those stemmed from an early sweeping request to states for voter data that some, including those led by Republicans, deemed too intrusive. The panel sought all publicly available information about voter rolls in the states, such as names of registrants, addresses, dates of birth, partial Social Security numbers and other data.
The commission met publicly in Washington in July and in New Hampshire in September. Other meetings planned across the country never materialized.
At the meeting in New Hampshire, Kobach came under fire from that state’s secretary of state for a piece he wrote for Breitbart News in which he speculated, without concrete evidence, that the result of New Hampshire’s 2016 Senate election “likely” changed because of voter fraud. The episode only emboldened critics of the commission who argued that Kobach, who is running for governor in Kansas, and other Republican members were too eager to find fraud where it doesn’t exist.
But after the meeting, Bill Gardner, the longtime New Hampshire secretary of state and a Democratic member of the commission, said he was still hopeful that the panel could overcome its rocky start.
“Sometimes if you’re tested severely at the beginning, you end up much stronger at the end,” Gardner said.
Several Republican members of the commission did not respond Wednesday night to requests for comment.
Even at the height of controversy surrounding the panel, some of the GOP members expressed hope that something positive could be accomplished.
“I think it’s a good idea to actually try to work together and get something done,” J. Christian Adams, a Republican on the commission, told The Washington Post in the fall. Adams leads an organization whose work has included a report titled “Alien Invasion II,” which details the presence of noncitizens on the voter rolls in Virginia.
During the fall, the panel was also rattled by two unforeseen events: the arrest of a staff member on charges of possessing child pornography and the death of one of the commissioners, Democrat David Dunn, a former Arkansas state legislator.
The original executive order establishing the commission called for it to produce a report to Trump detailing laws and policies that either enhance or undermine “the American people’s confidence in the integrity of the voting.”It was expected to meet at least five times and had a budget of $500,000.
Despite the accusations of bias, both Trump and Pence had said in opening remarks at the first commission meeting that it had no preordained agenda.
That did not reassure critics.
“This commission started as a tragedy and ended as a farce,” said Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice, a fierce critic of the panel. “It was a colossal waste of taxpayer money from the very beginning.”
Vanita Gupta, the former head of the civil rights division of the Justice Department during the Obama administration, said that “the abrupt abandonment of the commission makes clear that it had become a thoroughly discredited body that could not find evidence of mass voter fraud. The commission itself was unable to justify its existence as a result.”
A senior White House aide, however, said Democrats on the commission were to blame for refusing to work with the panel, as were states that refused to turn over public data.
The aide, who was not authorized to speak on behalf of the commission and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that the Department of Homeland Security is “better equipped to take up the matter.”